Jake Lacy and Alexandra Daddario on Tapping Into the Dark Side of High Living for HBO’s ‘The White Lotus’

In HBO’s six-part limited series “The White Lotus,” hell can be a comic opera of simmering tensions. A group of privileged Americans arrive at a Hawaiian resort, the White Lotus, where all looks exotic and comfortable. This dark pleasure created and directed by Mike White is an elegant, yet slyly depraved satire that sketches its characters with a real sense of what makes us human, both good and bad. At the center of its story are a young couple of newlyweds, Shane and Rachel, played by Jake Lacy and Alexandra Daddario. Rachel is an aspiring journalist who wonders if pursuing her career choice is still worth it, even as it begins to dawn on her that Shane is a selfish little monster. Their swirling emotional storm is compounded by material disappointments, like getting booked in the wrong room. The couple is surrounded by an ensemble just as colorful, including the hotel’s manager, Armond (Murray Bartlett), who is a ticking time bomb, and Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), a lonesome elite here to spread her mother’s ashes in the sea. Lacy and Daddario bring out the best in White’s writing, with Lacy giving Shane the careless cruelty of the privileged, while Daddario turns Rachel into a mixture of insecurities and inner strengths. The two spoke with Entertainment Voice about capturing the privilege and dark humor of “The White Lotus.”

Jake, ‘The White Lotus’ is such a sly commentary on so many aspects of our society. How did you begin forming this character after reading what Mike White had created?

I totally agree, it’s definitely a commentary on this upper class attitude towards themselves and their place in the world, and expectation and entitlement. My focus in the early stages was on Shane and his relationship with Rachel. Mike is such a wonderful writer and director that it was easy to understand the themes woven throughout the project, and to know that that was his responsibility and not mine. I just had to be observed in this glass case but not responsible for the perspective on it. I just had to be a part of the story.  Shane is one of those people totally unaware of how they are perceived in the world and yet are consistently paranoid about how they are perceived. He’s a guy obsessed with what people think of him, but has no concept of how people think of him. It’s actually a lot of fun (laughs).

Alexandra, at the beginning of the series Rachel is in such a unique position. She’s in this beautiful environment but with a guy like Shane. How did you first approach Rachel as an actor?

I really drew from a lot of my own experiences. This sort of people-pleasing aspect is something I’ve struggled with. This idea of “it’s all fine!” This couple, Rachel and Shane, are two people who did not have the right conversations before getting married. It’s like, the sex is good and they’re at the right age and can afford everything. I wanted to approach it as this woman whose anxiety is building until she can’t take it anymore. I’m certainly guilty of that. Mike is great to work with on this, because he’s so funny in a dry way where he’s so perceptive of how dark and funny the world is. Rachel has so much anxiety packed into her, and people can only take so much.

Would you say that Rachel proved to be one of the more personal roles you have inhabited?

It’s a personal role, definitely. I did another role that was very personal, in a movie I don’t think anyone saw named “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.” There are some similarities there. In that one I played a woman who was agoraphobic, it was based on a Shirley Jackson novel. It’s quite common with people, especially in some women, this idea of pretending everything is great. In that movie it was really on another level, that attitude of ‘it’s all great!’ In “The White Lotus,” the anxiety is more grounded and I do feel it’s personal. I definitely brought that aspect of myself to it, this sort of ‘I’m going to ignore everything’ and “How did I get in this situation?” I certainly know who I am as an actor, but that anxiety in Rachel is certainly still a part of who I am.

Jake, did you have any specific role models or influences to shape Shane?

What I found really helpful was that early on I thought of Shane in a two-dimensional sense. I had discussed with Mike how Shane really comes out when he’s just having fun. If you notice the cruelest things he says come out when he’s just having a good time. It’s way more cutting or off-putting when someone says something as their more relaxed, joyful selves, than when they’re ruthless or in your face. It’s easy when someone blows their top for us to think, “oh that person must have some mental imbalance,” but when someone is just casually passing judgement on other people it’s much more insidious. So I wanted to make him affable and at ease. That just makes him uglier.

Exactly, like that moment where Rachel mentions wanting to go back to writing and he just casually mentions she might just be a terrible writer.

Yes, the metrics by which he measures value is totally different from Rachel. For him it’s insane someone would want to sit in a room earning $400 a day working when he’s enjoying this $1,500 room. Having that room is what brings him fulfillment and joy. Can you put a price tag on joy? For Shane you can, it costs $1,500 (laughs). Sometimes you’re tempted to think, “he has a point, it’s not a great point, but it’s not wrong if you take all humanity out of the picture.” (Laughs). 

Alexandra, you have some fantastic moments where you get to act one-on-one with great cast members like Connie Britton, who plays the CEO mom vacationing with her family. What was it like on set shooting those moments?

It’s such an amazingly experienced cast. Everyone came prepared with who they were. There’s that scene with Connie Britton where my character is so excited and then it turns out she had written an article years ago about Connie’s character that she hated. When she hits me with that charge that my character is not as feminist as she thinks she is, accusing me of being “anti-woman,” you have to react off this brilliant actor’s character. I felt lucky working with such a great cast, because you’re playing a game of tennis.

Jake, the environment of ‘The White Lotus’ is so specific and richly detailed. It looks like the locale made filming almost a vacation onto itself.

(Laughs). We had a wonderful time. We were in this bubble because we had a whole Four Seasons in Maui to ourselves. It was a very small hotel staff too. So it was almost surreal walking through this empty hotel where there are only 40 of you staying. But the set team did such a great job heightening what a resort can be. When you walk into the Pineapple Suite there were actual pineapples everywhere (laughs). The Palm Suite had palms everywhere. I, as Jake, was in awe of this suite I was placed in. A 10-room ocean-view suite in Maui is obscenely expensive and I’m standing there looking at it. Yet for Shane, that’s a normal room. 

Alexandra, how did working with Mike White compare to the other, quite eclectic, repertoire of projects you have been involved with?

I loved him. He has an amazing perspective on the world. He’s tapped into the tragedy of humanity. I’ve always been driven to that perspective that sometimes the best way to deal with the worst aspects of life is through humor. I’ve worked in films that were pure learning experiences, and I’m grateful for all of them. But Mike has a very clear voice and perspective, which is rare. Some directors do not know what they’re trying to say. That’s the big difference. What’s the story you’re trying to tell? 

And, what do you hope ‘The White Lotus’ says to viewers?

It’s a commentary on what it is to be privileged while ignoring real problems in the world because it’s easy for you. Sometimes it can be as easy as ignoring people who work in the service industry. In this show, you see some people in the service industry get treated pretty horribly, because the other characters have no idea what it’s like to be them. Hopefully people watch it and get a sense of how we need more empathy. We tend to mistreat people because we have no idea what it’s like to be them. Some people behave ridiculously. But of course I hope viewers also laugh during the show.

The White Lotus” premieres July 11 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.